Thursday 29 May 2014

James Bond's journey through Kent - in pictures

Last year, MI6 Confidential published an article of mine in which I described my journey through Kent following the routes taken by James Bond and Sir Hugo Drax through Kent in Moonraker. I took some photographs on the way, and so I thought I'd publish a selection on the blog. You'll have to excuse the poor quality of some of them – I took them during a rainy December afternoon.
Outside Molash on the A252. Ian Fleming records that Bond took a hairpin bend on his approach into Molash on his way to Dover.

Fleming mentions the Charing fork, today marked by a roundabout, when Bond pursues Drax from London. 

The junction of Gabriel's Hill and King Street, Maidstone. The taxi marks the position of the traffic lights which momentarily hold Drax's Mercedes up.

Fleming tells us that Drax passes the Royal Star hotel, now a shopping arcade, on his way out of Maidstone.

The Sir Thomas Wyatt restaurant where Gala Brand learns the terrible truth of the Moonraker project.

Bond races down this stretch of the A20 around Wrotham Hill.

The Farningham bypass, where Bond reaches speeds of 90 miles per hour.

Bond's view from the Swanley junction looking south-east towards Farningham.

Saturday 17 May 2014

Bond songs in search of Bond films

When Austrian drag-artist Conchita Wurst won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest last week with 'Rise Like a Pheonix, I tweeted, “The Bond song won it.” Looking at the response on Twitter, it seems I wasn't the only one who thought her entry sounded Bondian. Stephe Meloy said, “Welcome home Ms Bond”, while Pop Topoi asked, “Would you like to be the next Bond girl?” Kevin Brennan MP thought that, “They should sign her up to sing the next Bond theme,” and BBC One tweeted, “Conchita Wurst for the next James Bond theme! She has a licence to thrill.” There were many more tweets expressing a similar sentiment.

Conchita's song has the hallmarks of a classic Bond song. It's majestic, bold, orchestral, and dramatic – the same qualities that characterise other Bond themes, particularly Adele's 'Skyfall', but including 'Surrender', by k d lang, and all three of Shirley Bassey's songs ('Diamonds Are Forever', 'Moonraker', and the genre-defining 'Goldfinger').

The 'Bassey-esque' number isn't the only model for writers penning songs to accompany the titles to Bond films. Rockier-sounding tunes, among them 'Live and Let Die' (Paul McCartney), 'A View To A Kill' (Duran Duran), and 'You Know My Name' (Chris Cornell), offer another important type of Bond song. As with dramatic ballads, the type is well established as a model for Bond music, as is evident from a press release by US rockers Colourmusic, whose latest album, May You Marry Rich, contains several tracks which the band describes as their 'James Bond songs'. The video for one of the tracks, 'Horse Race' (below), was also Bond-inspired.

That many people recognised elements or memes of Bond songs in Conchita's winning Eurovision entry is a measure of the extent to which the Bond sound has escaped the films and become established as a genre and cultural phenomenon in its own right. Indeed, it could be argued that Bond songs can exist even without the Bond films to go with them.

Sunday 11 May 2014

How does James Bond win at rock-paper-scissors?

A recent study of 360 players at a rock-paper-scissors tournament at Zhejiang University in China revealed that players who win a round tend to stick to their winning action in the next round, while the losing player tends to play the next action in the sequence. Thus, a competitor who wins with paper against the opponent's rock will play paper in the next round, while the opponent will play paper.

This seems to contradict an earlier study by a team from University College London (UCL), which studied the results of two contests – one in which both players were blindfolded, and the other in which one player was blindfolded – which suggested that players tend to mimic each other's actions through 'automatic imitation', resulting in a high proportion of draws.

Both studies demonstrate that play is rarely random. Game theory suggests that the best strategy to adopt is one where decisions about which action to play are random, but in practice this approach appears to be difficult to sustain.

Rock-paper-scissors is a game with which James Bond is familiar. In the novel of You Only Live Twice, the head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka, challenges Bond to a contest (chapter 1). The description of the contest, which deserves to join Moonraker's game of bridge and Goldfinger's golf match as a classic piece of sports writing, is sufficiently detailed to give us Bond's strategy over three games of rock-paper-scissors, each comprising the best of three rounds. Returning to the recent studies, how does Bond play?

Fleming tells us that Bond's strategy from the start is to play randomly. In the first round, Bond plays paper against Tiger's stone and wins. In the second round, Tiger plays stone to win against Bond's scissors. In the decider, Tiger keeps his stone, while Bond wins with paper. In this game, then, Bond does appear to play randomly, or least his strategy does not seem to fit the play typically encountered in the two studies. In contrast, Tiger's play is more calculated. By sticking to the same action over three rounds, he is likely to achieve some success against a random strategy simply by chance. But perhaps by the third round Bond's play is not so random. Fleming describes Bond's suspicions that Tiger would again choose stone, and this gives Bond the edge.

For much of the second game, Bond and Tiger show the same symbols and record a series of draws. The play appears to be consistent with 'automatic imitation' described in the UCL study. Tiger eventually wins the game, however, with Bond claiming to be continuing his random play.

In the third and final game, Bond wins the first round with stone against Tiger's scissors, and wins the second by playing paper against Tiger's stone. Again Bond can claim with some justification that his strategy was random – he “had had no method” – while Tiger appears to have adopted an approach which is consistent with the results of the study by Zhejiang University. Losing in the first round with scissors, he plays the next symbol in the sequence – rock (or stone) – in the second.

Of course, the game Fleming describes is fictional, with presumably no basis in fact. Bond was always going to win. But Fleming's writing is, as usual, so skilful and detailed that it offers a set of plausible results in the game of rock-paper-scissors that are consistent with standard and new theories of play.

Further reading:
Cook, R, Bird, G, L√ľnser, G and Huck, S, 2011 Automatic imitation in a strategic context: players of rock–paper–scissors imitate opponents' gestures, Proc. R. Soc. B, 22 February 2012 vol. 279 no. 1729 780-786, Published online before print 20 July 2011 doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1024
Wang, Z, Xu, B and Zhou, H-J, 2014 Social cycling and conditional responses in the Rock-Paper-Scissors game, arXiv:1404.5199v1 [physics.soc-ph]

Saturday 10 May 2014

Moving house

My James Bond library, ready for the move

I'm moving house in a few weeks' time. I left it till last, but it was finally time to pack up my library of Fleming- and Bond-related books, magazines, newspaper cuttings and other printed items of interest. That's over 350 books and five magazine holders of loose material, all packed up in 19 boxes stacked like gold bars in Fort Knox.

Despite the disruption, I still intend to write a weekly blog post over the next few weeks, but if the timings of the posts start to become a little irregular, then don't worry – normal service will resume as soon as possible.

Saturday 3 May 2014

OHMSS on the BBC - a review

Even a radio adaptation of a James Bond novel cannot avoid alluding to the cinematic Bond. On Her Majesty's Secret Service, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 3rd May, was the fourth radio adaptation of Ian Fleming's books by Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres, and as with the last, From Russia, with Love, starred Toby Stephens as Bond. This version was a reasonably straight adaptation of the novel, at times giving us Fleming's words verbatim. But hints of the film series sneaked in. This wasn't the only factor, however, which gave the radio play a familiar feel.

The plot of On Her Majesty's Secret Service is likely to have been well known to most listeners (but in case anyone isn't familiar with it, this paragraph contains spoilers). On the point of resignation following his fruitless hunt for Blofeld, James Bond encounters Contesse Teresa di Vincenzo. After saving Tracy from ignominy at the casino and spending the night with her, Bond is taken to her father, Marc-Ange Draco, head of the crime syndicate, the Union Corse. From Draco, Bond discovers that Blofeld is at Piz Gloria in Switzerland masquerading as the Comte de Bleuville, who is eager to have his title recognised. Bond travels to Switzerland disguised as heraldry expert, Sir Hilary Bray, and there meets a host of beautiful women with odd dietary needs and learns about Blofeld's mysterious allergy research laboratory, ultimately related to a plot to destroy Britain's food production. Bond's identity is eventually discovered, but he escapes to St Moritz and is helped to safety by Tracy. Bond returns to Piz Gloria with a team of Draco's men, but Blofeld evades capture. Bond and Tracy marry, but Blofeld is close by and kills Tracy.

The plot of the radio adaptation deviated little from the book, but there was still room to expand a few roles. Tracy's childhood threat to swim in the sea and never come back is delivered by a young Tracy, rather than just being described by Draco, and in another scene again only reported on in the book, Draco phones Tracy to tell her where in Switzerland she can find Bond. Back in London, Bond professes knowledge of London's Windmill Theatre, a review theatre famous for its nude shows, which closed in 1964.

Toby Stephens, settling comfortably back into the role, was excellent as Bond. His delivery was pure Fleming, and thankfully with no trace Die Another Day's Gustav Graves. In another nice piece of casting, the role of Blofeld's consort, Irma Bunt, went to Joanna Lumley, who appeared briefly in the film version as 'the English girl', one of Blofeld's Angels of Death. Blofeld was played by Alfred Molina. Being no stranger to villainous roles, Molina was also well cast, and his turn as Blofeld ought to serve as an audition for a part (Blofeld?) in a future Bond film.

M, played by John Standing, was his usual irascible self, though his invitation to Bond to “pull a [Christmas] cracker” was very out of character. In the novel, M tells Hammond, his former Chief Petty Officer, to “throw them out.”

Inevitably, the radio drama contained a few conventions and tropes of the Bond films. Q (played by Julian Sands) was on hand to 'pay his respects' at Bond's wedding; in the novel, of course, there is no Q, though there is a reference to the Technical Section. The novel's Mary Goodnight (Bond's secretary) was replaced, as in the film, by Miss Moneypenny, who, like Q, also guests at Bond's wedding; in the book the wedding is attended only by Draco, the British Consul General and Head of Station M. And in the style of his usual manner of introduction in the films, Bond introduced himself to the women in Blofeld's institute as “Bray, Hilary Bray”.

There were a few anachronisms – Bond exclaiming, “Oh, wow!” after being told Ruby's surname didn't seem Bondian somehow – and Bond even swore at one point. Admittedly he does swear in the books, but the words are never written in full, so when an expletive is used, in this case the 'S' word, it jars.

For all its quirks, the radio version of On Her Majesty's Secret Service was very enjoyable and entertaining. The cast was on top form, and the abridgement lost nothing of Fleming's voice. One cinematic convention that the play didn't copy was the promise at the end of each film that James Bond will return. That's one promise I hoped had been made.